Trade Shows Are Easy Targets for Foreign Intelligence Breaches

By James Lint
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University
Senior Editor for In Cyber Defense and Contributor, In Homeland Security

Trade shows are like playing poker with your competition standing over your shoulder or like a library with no library cards. Everything is easily available and there is lots of free information. The question is: who benefits from all this information?

A trade show offers a startup company an opportunity to make its new product a household name. It also facilitates networking opportunities for a marketing department looking for new business. In addition, a trade show is the perfect opportunity for business executives to learn if there are markets for a niche item they produce.

However, trade shows are also open venues for industrial spying by unfriendly nations seeking U.S. technology.

Intelligence Services View of Trade Shows

The Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce has control over what is authorized for sale to overseas companies. The website has a Consolidated Screening List. The CSL includes parties for which the United States maintains restrictions on certain exports, re-exports or transfers of items.

Because people and companies from specific countries are restricted from purchasing certain business lines, they may look for other opportunities for acquisition.

It would make no sense for the U.S. to sell elements of stealth technology to countries that wish to harm America. No country would sell missile technology to its enemies. So foreign intelligence entities (FIEs) look for other opportunities to acquire U.S. technology they cannot acquire through legitimate sales.

Trade shows provide an opportunity for those entities to see technology that they cannot purchase legitimately.

Techniques of Illicit Collection Vary, But the Goal Is the Same

The FBI pamphlet, “Counterintelligence Concerns for Trade Shows and Industry Events,” is designed to improve counterintelligence awareness of American citizens and companies by describing many of the collection activities FIEs conduct.

For example, one foreign agent dipped his tie into a beaker containing a solution used in a product demonstration at the company’s booth. That allowed his nation later to test the solution in a laboratory and gain a technological advantage through reverse engineering. A company representative’s “simple mistake” of not maintaining vigilance in the display booth proved to be a loss for a U.S. company.

Everyone knows that the informal side meetings at trade shows can often be more valuable than keynote events. In one case, it certainly was more valuable for the Russians.

Russian intelligence officer Evgeny Buryakov specialized in economic intelligence. Under unofficial cover as a Russian banker, he attended confidential meetings at a trade association conference and learned information that the Russian government was not authorized to know.

During an international arms exhibition, Chinese nationals were discovered taking notes and videotaping every display. The group also stole a video that revealed the U.S. Theater High Altitude Air Defense System(THAAD), which a Defense Department contractor left unprotected. Among other features, THAAD protects South Korea from North Korean missiles.

Currently, China is pressuring Seoul to prevent the deployment of THAAD in South Korea because of THAAD’s ability to observe aviation threats at great distances. Because of Chinese intelligence collection, Beijing knows THAAD’s capabilities and does not want the system nearby.

Often, trade show vendors do not want their booths photographed. But sometimes foreign intelligence personnel photograph the people in the booth to gain identification information for possible recruitment. In addition, they obtain ID information through the common trade show practice of exchanging business cards.

By learning who the technical experts at various companies are, FIEs gain an advantage for future intelligence targeting. Although this method of information collection could be considered a human intelligence targeting operation, it could also assist future targeting of company communications, including email intrusions. In fact, some companies report an increase of computer intrusions after a trade show.

Extensive Scope of Trade Show Espionage

In an annual report to Congress on foreign economic collection and industrial espionage, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive stated: “Entities from a record number of countries — 108 — were involved in collection efforts against sensitive and protected US technologies in FY 2005, according to evidence amassed by the Counterintelligence (CI) Community. A relatively small number of countries, though — including China and Russia — were the most aggressive and accounted for much of the targeting, just as they have since the CI Community first began systematically tracking foreign technology collection efforts in 1997.”

The FBI offers pamphlets and online counterintelligence documents to help companies safeguard their information and personnel. Protecting intellectual property (IP) is important for the future of the United States and American business.

Contact your local FBI office and ask for the Counterintelligence Coordinator.

About the Author

James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in South Korea, supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.

Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 43rd scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” a book in 2016 “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea,” and a new book in 2017 Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.


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